The old footman Filippitch came in, on tiptoe, as usual, with a cravat tied up in a rosette, with tightly compressed lips, ‘lest his breath should be smelt,’ with a grey tuft of hair standing up in the very middle of his forehead. He came in, bowed, and handed my grandmother on an iron tray a large letter with an heraldic seal. My grandmother put on her spectacles, read the letter through. . . .
‘Is he here?’ she asked.
‘What is my lady pleased . . . ’ Filippitch began timidly.
‘Imbecile! The man who brought the letter — is he here?’
‘He is here, to be sure he is. . . . He is sitting in the counting-house.’
My grandmother rattled her amber rosary beads. . . .
‘Tell him to come to me. . . . And you, sir,’ she turned to me, ‘sit still.’
As it was, I was sitting perfectly still in my corner, on the stool assigned to me.
My grandmother kept me well in hand!
* * * * *
Five minutes later there came into the room a man of five-and-thirty, black-haired and swarthy, with broad cheek-bones, a face marked with smallpox, a hook nose, and thick eyebrows, from under which the small grey eyes looked out with mournful composure. The colour of the eyes and their expression were out of keeping with the Oriental cast of the rest of the face. The man was dressed in a decent, long-skirted coat. He stopped in the doorway, and bowed — only with his head.
‘So your name’s Baburin?’ queried my grandmother, and she added to herself: ‘Il a l’air d’un arménien.’
‘Yes, it is,’ the man answered in a deep and even voice. At the first brusque sound of my grandmother’s voice his eyebrows faintly quivered. Surely he had not expected her to address him as an equal?
‘Are you a Russian? orthodox?’
My grandmother took off her spectacles, and scanned Baburin from head to foot deliberately. He did not drop his eyes, he merely folded his hands behind his back. What particularly struck my fancy was his beard; it was very smoothly shaven, but such blue cheeks and chin I had never seen in my life!
‘Yakov Petrovitch,’ began my grandmother, ‘recommends you strongly in his letter as sober and industrious; why, then, did you leave his service?’
‘He needs a different sort of person to manage his estate, madam.’
‘A different . . . sort? That I don’t quite understand.’
My grandmother rattled her beads again. ‘Yakov Petrovitch writes to me that there are two peculiarities about you. What peculiarities?’
Baburin shrugged his shoulders slightly.
‘I can’t tell what he sees fit to call peculiarities. Possibly that I . . . don’t allow corporal punishment.’
My grandmother was surprised. ‘Do you mean to say Yakov Petrovitch wanted to flog you?’
Baburin’s swarthy face grew red to the roots of his hair.
‘You have not understood me right, madam. I make it a rule not to employ corporal punishment . . . with the peasants.’
My grandmother was more surprised than ever; she positively threw up her hands.
‘Ah!’ she pronounced at last, and putting her head a little on one side, once more she scrutinised Baburin attentively. ‘So that’s your rule, is it? Well, that’s of no consequence whatever to me; I don’t want an overseer, but a counting-house clerk, a secretary. What sort of a hand do you write?’
‘I write well, without mistakes in spelling.’
‘That too is of no consequence to me. The great thing for me is for it to be clear, and without any of those new copybook letters with tails, that I don’t like. And what’s your other peculiarity?’
Baburin moved uneasily, coughed. . . .
‘Perhaps . . . the gentleman has referred to the fact that I am not alone.’
‘You are married?’
‘Oh no . . . but . . . ’
My grandmother knit her brows.
‘There is a person living with me . . . of the male sex . . . a comrade, a poor friend, from whom I have never parted . . . for . . . let me see . . . ten years now.’
‘A relation of yours?’
‘No, not a relation — a friend. As to work, there can be no possible hindrance occasioned by him,’ Baburin made haste to add, as though foreseeing objections. ‘He lives at my cost, occupies the same room with me; he is more likely to be of use, as he is well educated — speaking without flattery, extremely so, in fact — and his morals are exemplary.’
My grandmother heard Baburin out, chewing her lips and half closing her eyes.
‘He lives at your expense?’
‘You keep him out of charity?’
‘As an act of justice . . . as it’s the duty of one poor man to help another poor man.’
‘Indeed! It’s the first time I’ve heard that. I had supposed till now that that was rather the duty of rich people.’
‘For the rich, if I may venture to say so, it is an entertainment . . . but for such as we . . . ’
‘Well, well, that’s enough, that’s enough,’ my grandmother cut him short; and after a moment’s thought she queried, speaking through her nose, which was always a bad sign, ‘And what age is he, your protégé?’
‘About my own age.’
‘Really, I imagined that you were bringing him up.’
‘Not so; he is my comrade — and besides . . . ’
‘That’s enough,’ my grandmother cut him short a second time. ‘You’re a philanthropist, it seems. Yakov Petrovitch is right; for a man in your position it’s something very peculiar. But now let’s get to business. I’ll explain to you what your duties will be. And as regards wages. . . . Que faites vous ici?’ added my grandmother suddenly, turning her dry, yellow face to me:—‘Allez étudier votre devoir de mythologie.’
I jumped up, went up to kiss my grandmother’s hand, and went out — not to study mythology, but simply into the garden.
* * * * *
The garden on my grandmother’s estate was very old and large, and was bounded on one side by a flowing pond, in which there were not only plenty of carp and eels, but even loach were caught, those renowned loach, that have nowadays disappeared almost everywhere. At the head of this pond was a thick clump of willows; further and higher, on both sides of a rising slope, were dense bushes of hazel, elder, honeysuckle, and sloe-thorn, with an undergrowth of heather and clover flowers. Here and there between the bushes were tiny clearings, covered with emerald-green, silky, fine grass, in the midst of which squat funguses peeped out with their comical, variegated pink, lilac, and straw-coloured caps, and golden balls of ‘hen-dazzle’ blazed in light patches. Here in spring-time the nightingales sang, the blackbirds whistled, the cuckoos called; here in the heat of summer it was always cool — and I loved to make my way into the wilderness and thicket, where I had favourite secret spots, known — so, at least, I imagined — only to me.
On coming out of my grandmother’s room I made straight for one of these spots, which I had named ‘Switzerland.’ But what was my astonishment when, before I had reached ‘Switzerland,’ I perceived through the delicate network of half-dry twigs and green branches that some one besides me had found it out! A long, long figure in a long, loose coat of yellow frieze and a tall cap was standing in the very spot I loved best of all! I stole up a little nearer, and made out the face, which was utterly unknown to me, also very long and soft, with small reddish eyes, and a very funny nose; drawn out as long as a pod of peas, it positively over-hung the full lips; and these lips, quivering and forming a round O, were giving vent to a shrill little whistle, while the long fingers of the bony hands, placed facing one another on the upper part of the chest, were rapidly moving with a rotatory action. From time to time the motion of the hands subsided, the lips ceased whistling and quivering, the head was bent forward as though listening. I came still nearer, examined him still more closely. . . . The stranger held in each hand a small flat cup, such as people use to tease canaries and make them sing. A twig snapped under my feet; the stranger started, turned his dim little eyes towards the copse, and was staggering away . . . but he stumbled against a tree, uttered an exclamation, and stood still.
I came out into the open space. The stranger smiled.
‘Good morning,’ said I.
‘Good morning, little master!’
I did not like his calling me little master. Such familiarity!
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked sternly.
‘Why, look here,’ he responded, never leaving off smiling, ‘I’m calling the little birds to sing.’ He showed me his little cups. ‘The chaffinches answer splendidly! You, at your tender years, take delight, no doubt, in the feathered songsters’ notes! Listen, I beg; I will begin chirping, and they’ll answer me directly — it’s so delightful!’
He began rubbing his little cups. A chaffinch actually did chirp in response from a mountain ash near. The stranger laughed without a sound, and winked at me.
The laugh and the wink — every gesture of the stranger, his weak, lisping voice, his bent knees and thin hands, his very cap and long frieze coat — everything about him suggested good-nature, something innocent and droll.
‘Have you been here long?’ I asked.
‘I came today.’
‘Why, aren’t you the person of whom . . . ’
‘Mr. Baburin spoke to the lady here. The same, the same.’
‘Your friend’s name’s Baburin, and what’s yours?’
‘I’m Punin. Punin’s my name; Punin. He’s Baburin and I’m Punin.’ He set the little cups humming again. ‘Listen, listen to the chaffinch. . . . How it carols!’
This queer creature took my fancy ‘awfully’ all at once. Like almost all boys, I was either timid or consequential with strangers, but I felt with this man as if I had known him for ages.
‘Come along with me,’ I said to him; ‘I know a place better than this; there’s a seat there; we can sit down, and we can see the dam from there.’
‘By all means let us go,’ my new friend responded in his singing voice. I let him pass before me. As he walked he rolled from side to side, tripped over his own feet, and his head fell back.
I noticed on the back of his coat, under the collar, there hung a small tassel. ‘What’s that you’ve got hanging there?’ I asked.
‘Where?’ he questioned, and he put his hand up to the collar to feel. ‘Ah, the tassel? Let it be! I suppose it was sewn there for ornament! It’s not in the way.’
I led him to the seat, and sat down; he settled himself beside me. ‘It’s lovely here!’ he commented, and he drew a deep, deep sigh. ‘Oh, how lovely! You have a most splendid garden! Oh, o — oh!’
I looked at him from one side. ‘What a queer cap you’ve got!’ I couldn’t help exclaiming. ‘Show it me here!’
‘By all means, little master, by all means.’ He took off the cap; I was holding out my hand, but I raised my eyes, and — simply burst out laughing. Punin was completely bald; not a single hair was to be seen on the high conical skull, covered with smooth white skin. He passed his open hand over it, and he too laughed. When he laughed he seemed, as it were, to gulp, he opened his mouth wide, closed his eyes — and vertical wrinkles flitted across his forehead in three rows, like waves. ‘Eh,’ said he at last, ‘isn’t it quite like an egg?’
‘Yes, yes, exactly like an egg!’ I agreed with enthusiasm. ‘And have you been like that long?’
‘Yes, a long while; but what hair I used to have! — A golden fleece like that for which the Argonauts sailed over the watery deeps.’
Though I was only twelve, yet, thanks to my mythological studies, I knew who the Argonauts were; I was the more surprised at hearing the name on the lips of a man dressed almost in rags.
‘You must have learned mythology, then?’ I queried, as I twisted his cap over and over in my hands. It turned out to be wadded, with a mangy-looking fur trimming, and a broken cardboard peak.
‘I have studied that subject, my dear little master; I’ve had time enough for everything in my life! But now restore to me my covering, it is a protection to the nakedness of my head.’
He put on the cap, and, with a downward slope of his whitish eyebrows, asked me who I was, and who were my parents.
‘I’m the grandson of the lady who owns this place,’ I answered. ‘I live alone with her. Papa and mamma are dead.’
Punin crossed himself. ‘May the kingdom of heaven be theirs! So then, you’re an orphan; and the heir, too. The noble blood in you is visible at once; it fairly sparkles in your eyes, and plays like this . . . sh . . . sh . . . sh . . . ’ He represented with his fingers the play of the blood. ‘Well, and do you know, your noble honour, whether my friend has come to terms with your grandmamma, whether he has obtained the situation he was promised?’
‘I don’t know.’
Punin cleared his throat. ‘Ah! if one could be settled here, if only for a while! Or else one may wander and wander far, and find not a place to rest one’s head; the disquieting alarms of life are unceasing, the soul is confounded. . . . ’
‘Tell me,’ I interrupted: ‘are you of the clerical profession?’
Punin turned to me and half closed his eyelids. ‘And what may be the cause of that question, gentle youth?’
‘Why, you talk so — well, as they read in church.’
‘Because I use the old scriptural forms of expression? But that ought not to surprise you. Admitting that in ordinary conversation such forms of expression are not always in place; but when one soars on the wings of inspiration, at once the language too grows more exalted. Surely your teacher — the professor of Russian literature — you do have lessons in that, I suppose? — surely he teaches you that, doesn’t he?’
‘No, he doesn’t,’ I responded. ‘When we stay in the country I have no teacher. In Moscow I have a great many teachers.’
‘And will you be staying long in the country?’
‘Two months, not longer; grandmother says that I’m spoilt in the country, though I have a governess even here.’
‘A French governess?’
Punin scratched behind his ear. ‘A mamselle, that’s to say?’
‘Yes; she’s called Mademoiselle Friquet.’ I suddenly felt it disgraceful for me, a boy of twelve, to have not a tutor, but a governess, like a little girl! ‘But I don’t mind her,’ I added contemptuously. ‘What do I care!’
Punin shook his head. ‘Ah, you gentlefolk, you gentlefolk! you’re too fond of foreigners! You have turned away from what is Russian — towards all that’s strange. You’ve turned your hearts to those that come from foreign parts. . . . ’
‘Hullo! Are you talking in verse?’ I asked.
‘Well, and why not? I can do that always, as much as you please; for it comes natural to me. . . . ’
But at that very instant there sounded in the garden behind us a loud and shrill whistle. My new acquaintance hurriedly got up from the bench.
‘Good-bye, little sir; that’s my friend calling me, looking for me. . . . What has he to tell me? Good-bye — excuse me. . . . ’
He plunged into the bushes and vanished, while I sat on some time longer on the seat. I felt perplexity and another feeling, rather an agreeable one . . . I had never met nor spoken to any one like this before. Gradually I fell to dreaming, but recollected my mythology and sauntered towards the house.
* * * * *
At home, I learned that my grandmother had arranged to take Baburin; he had been assigned a small room in the servants’ quarters, overlooking the stable-yard. He had at once settled in there with his friend.
When I had drunk my tea, next morning, without asking leave of Mademoiselle Friquet, I set off to the servants’ quarters. I wanted to have another chat with the queer fellow I had seen the day before. Without knocking at the door — the very idea of doing so would never have occurred to us — I walked straight into the room. I found in it not the man I was looking for, not Punin, but his protector — the philanthropist, Baburin. He was standing before the window, without his outer garment, his legs wide apart. He was busily engaged in rubbing his head and neck with a long towel.
‘What do you want?’ he observed, keeping his hands still raised, and knitting his brows.
‘Punin’s not at home, then?’ I queried in the most free-and-easy manner, without taking off my cap.
‘Mr. Punin, Nikander Vavilitch, at this moment, is not at home, truly,’ Baburin responded deliberately; ‘but allow me to make an observation, young man: it’s not the proper thing to come into another person’s room like this, without asking leave.’
I! . . . young man! . . . how dared he! . . . I grew crimson with fury.
‘You cannot be aware who I am,’ I rejoined, in a manner no longer free-and-easy, but haughty. ‘I am the grandson of the mistress here.’
‘That’s all the same to me,’ retorted Baburin, setting to work with his towel again. ‘Though you are the seignorial grandson, you have no right to come into other people’s rooms.’
‘Other people’s? What do you mean? I’m — at home here — everywhere.’
‘No, excuse me: here — I’m at home; since this room has been assigned to me, by agreement, in exchange for my work.’
‘Don’t teach me, if you please,’ I interrupted: ‘I know better than you what . . . ’
‘You must be taught,’ he interrupted in his turn, ‘for you’re at an age when you . . . I know my duties, but I know my rights too very well, and if you continue to speak to me in that way, I shall have to ask you to go out of the room. . . . ’
There is no knowing how our dispute would have ended if Punin had not at that instant entered, shuffling and shambling from side to side. He most likely guessed from the expression of our faces that some unpleasantness had passed between us, and at once turned to me with the warmest expressions of delight.
‘Ah! little master! little master!’ he cried, waving his hands wildly, and going off into his noiseless laugh: ‘the little dear! come to pay me a visit! here he’s come, the little dear!’ (What’s the meaning of it? I thought: can he be speaking in this familiar way to me?) ‘There, come along, come with me into the garden. I’ve found something there. . . . Why stay in this stuffiness here! let’s go!’
I followed Punin, but in the doorway I thought it as well to turn round and fling a glance of defiance at Baburin, as though to say, I’m not afraid of you!
He responded in the same way, and positively snorted into the towel — probably to make me thoroughly aware how utterly he despised me!
What an insolent fellow your friend is!’ I said to Punin, directly the door had closed behind me.
Almost with horror, Punin turned his plump face to me.
‘To whom did you apply that expression?’ he asked me, with round eyes.
‘Why, to him, of course. . . . What’s his name? that . . . Baburin.’
‘Why, yes; that . . . blackfaced fellow.’
‘Eh . . . eh . . . eh . . .!’ Punin protested, with caressing reproachfulness. ‘How can you talk like that, little master! Paramon Semyonevitch is the most estimable man, of the strictest principles, an extraordinary person! To be sure, he won’t allow any disrespect to him, because — he knows his own value. That man possesses a vast amount of knowledge — and it’s not a place like this he ought to be filling! You must, my dear, behave very courteously to him; do you know, he’s . . . ’ here Punin bent down quite to my ear — ‘a republican!’
I stared at Punin. This I had not at all expected. From Keidanov’s manual and other historical works I had gathered the fact that at some period or other, in ancient times, there had existed republicans, Greeks and Romans. For some unknown reason I had always pictured them all in helmets, with round shields on their arms, and big bare legs; but that in real life, in the actual present, above all, in Russia, in the province of X— — one could come across republicans — that upset all my notions, and utterly confounded them!
‘Yes, my dear, yes; Paramon Semyonitch is a republican,’ repeated Punin; ‘there, so you’ll know for the future how one should speak of a man like that! But now let’s go into the garden. Fancy what I’ve found there! A cuckoo’s egg in a redstart’s nest! a lovely thing!’
I went into the garden with Punin; but mentally I kept repeating: ‘republican! re . . . pub . . . lican!’
‘So,’ I decided at last —‘that’s why he has such a blue chin!’
* * * * *
My attitude to these two persons — Punin and Baburin — took definite shape from that very day. Baburin aroused in me a feeling of hostility with which there was, however, in a short time, mingled something akin to respect. And wasn’t I afraid of him! I never got over being afraid of him even when the sharp severity of his manner with me at first had quite disappeared. It is needless to say that of Punin I had no fear; I did not even respect him; I looked upon him — not to put too fine a point on it — as a buffoon; but I loved him with my whole soul! To spend hours at a time in his company, to be alone with him, to listen to his stories, became a genuine delight to me. My grandmother was anything but pleased at this intimité with a person of the ‘lower classes’— du commun; but, whenever I could break away, I flew at once to my queer, amusing, beloved friend. Our meetings became more frequent after the departure of Mademoiselle Friquet, whom my grandmother sent back to Moscow in disgrace because, in conversation with a military staff captain, visiting in the neighbourhood, she had had the insolence to complain of the dulness which reigned in our household. And Punin, for his part, was not bored by long conversations with a boy of twelve; he seemed to seek them of himself. How often have I listened to his stories, sitting with him in the fragrant shade, on the dry, smooth grass, under the canopy of the silver poplars, or among the reeds above the pond, on the coarse, damp sand of the hollow bank, from which the knotted roots protruded, queerly interlaced, like great black veins, like snakes, like creatures emerging from some subterranean region! Punin told me the whole story of his life in minute detail, describing all his happy adventures, and all his misfortunes, with which I always felt the sincerest sympathy! His father had been a deacon; —‘a splendid man — but, under the influence of drink, stern to the last extreme.’
Punin himself had received his education in a seminary; but, unable to stand the severe thrashings, and feeling no inclination for the priestly calling, he had become a layman, and in consequence had experienced all sorts of hardships; and, finally, had become a vagrant. ‘And had I not met with my benefactor, Paramon Semyonitch,’ Punin commonly added (he never spoke of Baburin except in this way), ‘I should have sunk into the miry abysses of poverty and vice.’ Punin was fond of high-sounding expressions, and had a great propensity, if not for lying, for romancing and exaggeration; he admired everything, fell into ecstasies over everything. . . . And I, in imitation of him, began to exaggerate and be ecstatic, too. ‘What a crazy fellow you’ve grown! God have mercy on you!’ my old nurse used to say to me. Punin’s narratives used to interest me extremely; but even better than his stories I loved the readings we used to have together.
It is impossible to describe the feeling I experienced when, snatching a favourable moment, suddenly, like a hermit in a tale or a good fairy, he appeared before me with a ponderous volume under his arm, and stealthily beckoning with his long crooked finger, and winking mysteriously, he pointed with his head, his eyebrows, his shoulders, his whole person, toward the deepest recesses of the garden, whither no one could penetrate after us, and where it was impossible to find us out. And when we had succeeded in getting away unnoticed; when we had satisfactorily reached one of our secret nooks, and were sitting side by side, and, at last, the book was slowly opened, emitting a pungent odour, inexpressibly sweet to me then, of mildew and age; — with what a thrill, with what a wave of dumb expectancy, I gazed at the face, at the lips of Punin, those lips from which in a moment a stream of such delicious eloquence was to flow! At last the first sounds of the reading were heard. Everything around me vanished . . . no, not vanished, but grew far away, passed into clouds of mist, leaving behind only an impression of something friendly and protecting. Those trees, those green leaves, those high grasses screen us, hide us from all the rest of the world; no one knows where we are, what we are about — while with us is poetry, we are saturated in it, intoxicated with it, something solemn, grand, mysterious is happening to us. . . . Punin, by preference, kept to poetry, musical, sonorous poetry; he was ready to lay down his life for poetry. He did not read, he declaimed the verse majestically, in a torrent of rhythm, in a rolling outpour through his nose, like a man intoxicated, lifted out of himself, like the Pythian priestess. And another habit he had: first he would lisp the verses through softly, in a whisper, as it were mumbling them to himself. . . . This he used to call the rough sketch of the reading; then he would thunder out the same verse in its ‘fair copy,’ and would all at once leap up, throw up his hand, with a half-supplicating, half-imperious gesture. . . . In this way we went through not only Lomonosov, Sumarokov, and Kantemir (the older the poems, the more they were to Punin’s taste), but even Heraskov’s Rossiad. And, to tell the truth, it was this same Rossiad which aroused my enthusiasm most. There is in it, among others, a mighty Tatar woman, a gigantic heroine; I have forgotten even her name now; but in those days my hands and feet turned cold as soon as it was mentioned. ‘Yes,’ Punin would say, nodding his head with great significance, ‘Heraskov, he doesn’t let one off easily. At times one comes upon a line, simply heart-breaking. . . . One can only stick to it, and do one’s best. . . . One tries to master it, but he breaks away again and trumpets, trumpets, with the crash of cymbals. His name’s been well bestowed on him — the very word, Herrraskov!’ Lomonosov Punin found fault with for too simple and free a style; while to Derzhavin he maintained an attitude almost of hostility, saying that he was more of a courtier than a poet. In our house it was not merely that no attention was given to literature, to poetry; but poetry, especially Russian poetry, was looked upon as something quite undignified and vulgar; my grandmother did not even call it poetry, but ‘doggrel verses’; every author of such doggrel was, in her opinion, either a confirmed toper or a perfect idiot. Brought up among such ideas, it was inevitable that I should either turn from Punin with disgust — he was untidy and shabby into the bargain, which was an offence to my seignorial habits — or that, attracted and captivated by him, I should follow his example, and be infected by his passion for poetry. . . . And so it turned out. I, too, began reading poetry, or, as my grandmother expressed it, poring over doggrel trash. . . . I even tried my hand at versifying, and composed a poem, descriptive of a barrel-organ, in which occurred the following two lines:
‘Lo, the barrel turns around,
And the cogs within resound.’
Punin commended in this effort a certain imitative melody, but disapproved of the subject itself as low and unworthy of lyrical treatment.
Alas! all those efforts and emotions and transports, our solitary readings, our life together, our poetry, all came to an end at once. Trouble broke upon us suddenly, like a clap of thunder.
* * * * *
My grandmother in everything liked cleanliness and order, quite in the spirit of the active generals of those days; cleanliness and order were to be maintained too in our garden. And so from time to time they ‘drove’ into it poor peasants, who had no families, no land, no beasts of their own, and those among the house serfs who were out of favour or superannuated, and set them to clearing the paths, weeding the borders, breaking up and sifting the earth in the beds, and so on. Well, one day, in the very heat of these operations, my grandmother went into the garden, and took me with her. On all sides, among the trees and about the lawns, we caught glimpses of white, red, and blue smocks; on all sides we heard the scraping and clanging of spades, the dull thud of clods of earth on the slanting sieves. As she passed by the labourers, my grandmother with her eagle eye noticed at once that one of them was working with less energy than the rest, and that he took off his cap, too, with no show of eagerness. This was a youth, still quite young, with a wasted face, and sunken, lustreless eyes. His cotton smock, all torn and patched, scarcely held together over his narrow shoulders.
‘Who’s that?’ my grandmother inquired of Filippitch, who was walking on tiptoe behind her.
‘Of whom . . . you are pleased . . . ’ Filippitch stammered.
‘Oh, fool! I mean the one that looked so sullenly at me. There, standing yonder, not working.’
‘Oh, him! Yes . . . th . . . th . . . that’s Yermil, son of Pavel Afanasiitch, now deceased.’
Pavel Afanasiitch had been, ten years before, head butler in my grandmother’s house, and stood particularly high in her favour. But suddenly falling into disgrace, he was as suddenly degraded to being herdsman, and did not long keep even that position. He sank lower still, and struggled on for a while on a monthly pittance of flour in a little hut far away. At last he had died of paralysis, leaving his family in the most utter destitution.
‘Aha!’ commented my grandmother; ‘it’s clear the apple’s not fallen far from the tree. Well, we shall have to make arrangements about this fellow too. I’ve no need of people like that, with scowling faces.’
My grandmother went back to the house — and made arrangements. Three hours later Yermil, completely ‘equipped,’ was brought under the window of her room. The unfortunate boy was being transported to a settlement; the other side of the fence, a few steps from him, was a little cart loaded with his poor belongings. Such were the times then. Yermil stood without his cap, with downcast head, barefoot, with his boots tied up with a string behind his back; his face, turned towards the seignorial mansion, expressed not despair nor grief, nor even bewilderment; a stupid smile was frozen on his colourless lips; his eyes, dry and half-closed, looked stubbornly on the ground. My grandmother was apprised of his presence. She got up from the sofa, went, with a faint rustle of her silken skirts, to the window of the study, and, holding her golden-rimmed double eyeglass on the bridge of her nose, looked at the new exile. In her room there happened to be at the moment four other persons, the butler, Baburin, the page who waited on my grandmother in the daytime, and I.
My grandmother nodded her head up and down. . . .
‘Madam,’ a hoarse almost stifled voice was heard suddenly. I looked round. Baburin’s face was red . . . dark red; under his overhanging brows could be seen little sharp points of light. . . . There was no doubt about it; it was he, it was Baburin, who had uttered the word ‘Madam.’
My grandmother too looked round, and turned her eyeglass from Yermil to Baburin.
‘Who is that . . . speaking?’ she articulated slowly . . . through her nose. Baburin moved slightly forward.
‘Madam,’ he began, ‘it is I. . . . I venture . . . I imagine . . . I make bold to submit to your honour that you are making a mistake in acting as . . . as you are pleased to act at this moment.’
‘That is?’ my grandmother said, in the same voice, not removing her eyeglass.
‘I take the liberty . . . ’ Baburin went on distinctly, uttering every word though with obvious effort —‘I am referring to the case of this lad who is being sent away to a settlement . . . for no fault of his. Such arrangements, I venture to submit, lead to dissatisfaction, and to other — which God forbid! — consequences, and are nothing else than a transgression of the powers allowed to seignorial proprietors.’
‘And where have you studied, pray?’ my grandmother asked after a short silence, and she dropped her eyeglass.
Baburin was disconcerted. ‘What are you pleased to wish?’ he muttered.
‘I ask you: where have you studied? You use such learned words.’
‘I . . . my education . . . ’ Baburin was beginning.
My grandmother shrugged her shoulders contemptuously. ‘It seems,’ she interrupted, ‘that my arrangements are not to your liking. That is of absolutely no consequence to me — among my subjects I am sovereign, and answerable to no one for them, only I am not accustomed to having people criticising me in my presence, and meddling in what is not their business. I have no need of learned philanthropists of nondescript position; I want servants to do my will without question. So I always lived till you came, and so I shall live after you’ve gone. You do not suit me; you are discharged. Nikolai Antonov,’ my grandmother turned to the steward, ‘pay this man off; and let him be gone before dinner-time today! D’you hear? Don’t put me into a passion. And the other too . . . the fool that lives with him — to be sent off too. What’s Yermilka waiting for?’ she added, looking out of window, ‘I have seen him. What more does he want?’ My grandmother shook her handkerchief in the direction of the window, as though to drive away an importunate fly. Then she sat down in a low chair, and turning towards us, gave the order grimly: ‘Everybody present to leave the room!’
We all withdrew — all, except the day page, to whom my grandmother’s words did not apply, because he was nobody.
My grandmother’s decree was carried out to the letter. Before dinner, both Baburin and my friend Punin were driving away from the place. I will not undertake to describe my grief, my genuine, truly childish despair. It was so strong that it stifled even the feeling of awe-stricken admiration inspired by the bold action of the republican Baburin. After the conversation with my grandmother, he went at once to his room and began packing up. He did not vouchsafe me one word, one look, though I was the whole time hanging about him, or rather, in reality, about Punin. The latter was utterly distraught, and he too said nothing; but he was continually glancing at me, and tears stood in his eyes . . . always the same tears; they neither fell nor dried up. He did not venture to criticise his ‘benefactor’— Paramon Semyonitch could not make a mistake — but great was his distress and dejection. Punin and I made an effort to read something out of the Rossiad for the last time; we even locked ourselves up in the lumber-room — it was useless to dream of going into the garden — but at the very first line we both broke down, and I fairly bellowed like a calf, in spite of my twelve years, and my claims to be grown-up.
When he had taken his seat in the carriage Baburin at last turned to me, and with a slight softening of the accustomed sternness of his face, observed: ‘It’s a lesson for you, young gentleman; remember this incident, and when you grow up, try to put an end to such acts of injustice. Your heart is good, your nature is not yet corrupted. . . . Mind, be careful; things can’t go on like this!’ Through my tears, which streamed copiously over my nose, my lips, and my chin, I faltered out that I would . . . I would remember, that I promised . . . I would do . . . I would be sure . . . quite sure . . .
But at this point, Punin, whom I had before this embraced twenty times (my cheeks were burning from the contact with his unshaven beard, and I was odoriferous of the smell that always clung to him)— at this point a sudden frenzy came over Punin. He jumped up on the seat of the cart, flung both hands up in the air, and began in a voice of thunder (where he got it from!) to declaim the well-known paraphrase of the Psalm of David by Derzhavin — a poet for this occasion — not a courtier.
‘God the All-powerful doth arise
And judgeth in the congregation of the mighty! . . .
How long, how long, saith the Lord,
Will ye have mercy on the wicked?
“Ye have to keep the laws. . . . ”’
‘Sit down!’ Baburin said to him.
Punin sat down, but continued:
‘To save the guiltless and needy,
To give shelter to the afflicted,
To defend the weak from the oppressors.’
Punin at the word ‘oppressors’ pointed to the seignorial abode, and then poked the driver in the back.
‘To deliver the poor out of bondage!
They know not! neither will they understand! . . . ’
Nikolai Antonov running out of the seignorial abode, shouted at the top of his voice to the coachman: ‘Get away with you! owl! go along! don’t stay lingering here!’ and the cart rolled away. Only in the distance could still be heard:
‘Arise, O Lord God of righteousness! . . .
Come forth to judge the unjust —
And be Thou the only Ruler of the nations!’
‘What a clown!’ remarked Nikolai Antonov.
‘He didn’t get enough of the rod in his young days,’ observed the deacon, appearing on the steps. He had come to inquire what hour it would please the mistress to fix for the night service.
The same day, learning that Yermil was still in the village, and would not till early next morning be despatched to the town for the execution of certain legal formalities, which were intended to check the arbitrary proceedings of the landowners, but served only as a source of additional revenue to the functionaries in superintendence of them, I sought him out, and, for lack of money of my own, handed him a bundle, in which I had tied up two pocket-handkerchiefs, a shabby pair of slippers, a comb, an old night-gown, and a perfectly new silk cravat. Yermil, whom I had to wake up — he was lying on a heap of straw in the back yard, near the cart — Yermil took my present rather indifferently, with some hesitation in fact, did not thank me, promptly poked his head into the straw and fell asleep again. I went home somewhat disappointed. I had imagined that he would be astonished and overjoyed at my visit, would see in it a pledge of my magnanimous intentions for the future — and instead of that . . .
‘You may say what you like — these people have no feeling,’ was my reflection on my homeward way.
My grandmother, who had for some reason left me in peace the whole of that memorable day, looked at me suspiciously when I came after supper to say good-night to her.
‘Your eyes are red,’ she observed to me in French; ‘and there’s a smell of the peasant’s hut about you. I am not going to enter into an examination of what you’ve been feeling and doing — I should not like to be obliged to punish you — but I hope you will get over all your foolishness, and begin to conduct yourself once more in a manner befitting a well-bred boy. However, we are soon going back to Moscow, and I shall get you a tutor — as I see you need a man’s hand to manage you. You can go.’
We did, as a fact, go back soon after to Moscow.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01